Africa’s ocean economy

Africa’s ocean economy

The oceans and seas surrounding Africa are important to the continent’s economy. Marine renewable energy, ocean waste management, fisheries, water tourism, and commercial shipping are just some of its components. The term ocean economy refers to the exploitation of earth’s ocean recourses for economic growth and job creation. Madagascar, Somalia, Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria are big players in Africa’s global ocean-borne trade. A central aspect of this exploitation is sustainability. The preservation of oceanic ecosystems is a necessity to ensure their continued use. Here is a quick look at this vast maritime network of activities.


By 2025 the global shipbuilding industry is projected to be worth $140 billion. Africa currently commands merely 4% of it. This share is expected to grow. Shipbuilding in Africa is as old as civilization itself. Today one African shipbuilder stands out. Sandock Austral is the largest, most advanced, and most accredited ship construction yard in Southern Africa. It is located in the Bayhead area of Durban. With a history of defense contracting, Sandock Austral is part of a government initiative aimed at job creation in the shipping industry. It recorded sales worth $38 million in 2020. The yard provides a range of services including ship construction, repairs, and maintenance of naval vessels.

The majority of Africa’s well-document and standardized shipyards are in South Africa. This is despite the fact that 39 of Africa’s 55 nations have ocean access. Notable shipbuilding and repair firms on the continent include African Marine and General Engineering Company Limited (AMGECO) in Kenya and Timsah Shipbuilding in Egypt. Many more are aiming to expand their marine capabilities.


Throughout history seaports have been of great importance to nations. Ports have been hubs of commerce since the early days of transatlantic trade. All nations which have ports aim to expand and develop them further. Africa’s largest ports are in South Africa, Kenya, Djibouti, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast. These ports are hotspots for tourism and trade. They create employment for millions who work in restaurants, hotels, trading centers, warehouses, shipyards, customs offices, and countless support businesses. African ports are at the epicenter of national policy management and maritime regulation.

For the landlocked countries of Africa ports are important interfaces to the outside world. Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, and Zimbabwe depend on South Africa’s Durban port for maritime trade. Uganda depends on Kenya and Tanzania. 2 of the busiest ports in Africa are the Tanger Med in Morocco and Port Said in Egypt. According to The Walloon Agency for Export and Foreign Investments (L’Agence wallonne à l’Exportation et aux Investissements étrangers, or AWEX), Port Said handles 1.5 million passengers daily and 6 million tons of goods annually.

Shipping and routes

In 2018 Africa’s shipping industry accounted for 2.7% of global trade by value. It also represented 7% of global seaborne trade by volume, and 5% of maritime imports and exports. UNCTAD reported that in 2018, 40% of Africa’s exports were crude oil, while 20% of its imports were petroleum products and gas. External shocks of the COVID-19 crisis have deeply dented these figures. There has been a 21% drop in exports and a 17% drop in imports.

Nevertheless the number of shipping routes and international trade agreements is growing. Currently there are 4 regional agreements coordinated and managed within larger international agreements. These are overseen by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The agreements seek to ‘protect, manage and develop the marine and coastal environments of Africa and the Western Indian Ocean’. Africa is geared for further economic growth. The developments indicate a positive future for Africa’s shipping economy.

Maritime security

Security is an important feature of every growing economy. Protecting state and private interests creates a level playing field for all stakeholders. It is a prerequisite for the growth of nations and the continent. Smuggling, weapon trafficking, and piracy are only a few of the dangers that threaten Africa’s ocean economy. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that West Africa lost $2.3 billion to piracy and other nautical crimes over three years (2015-2017). 2018 saw hijackings double in the Gulf of Guinea. 13 ships were attacked and 130 hostages taken. The Djibouti and Yaoundé Codes of Conduct now govern the ocean economy in central and southern Africa. The 5+5 Defense Initiative in collaboration with Southern Europe facilitates security in North Africa.

Maritime human migrations

African migrants travel in search of better living conditions, work opportunities, and social acceptance. Many move to flee civil unrest while millions are displaced by conflict. The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that the corridor from Africa to Yemen is the World’s Busiest Maritime Migration Route. In 2019 over 138,000 migrants made the perilous journey from the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. Somalis made up 8% of that number. The remaining 92% were Ethiopians. These travelers often intend to go further, all the way to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). They still face life threatening situations along the way. Traffickers and smugglers are the worst of the problems. Agreements are now in place between the Ethiopian Government and the KSA to improve the lot of these migrants. Millions of Africans live and work overseas. Many are able to transfer money back to their families as remittances. Countries in Middle and North Africa receive more than $62 billion in annual remittances.

Africa’s ocean economy has come a long way. Yet there is much more to be done. Collaborative regional and international efforts are the way forward. Africa has the potential to enter into a new age of development and socio-economic growth.

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